Commentary for Bern Riddle 46: De malleo


Date: Mon 01 Mar 2021
Matching Riddle: Bern Riddle 46: De malleo

This banging riddle uses all kinds of fantastic disguises to describe a very common tool. Several manuscripts mistakenly describe it as a riddle about a pestle (De pistillo), probably because of its similarity to two riddles by Symphosius (Nos. 86 and 87), an unknown writer who wrote 100 influential riddles at some point between the third and fifth centuries. The Bern Riddler was very familiar with them; here he cleverly combines motifs from Symphosius’ riddles on the hammer and the pestle to create an entirely new one. Fellow riddle-lovers, it’s Hammer Time!

The riddle begins by depicting the hammer as if it were a kind of monster, telling us that “My whole body is one neck.” This description borrows heavily from Symphosius’ riddle on the pestle, which tells us that una mihi cervix, capitum sed forma duorum (“I have one head but the appearance of two”). Line 2 goes on to reveal that this giant-necked creature also has two heads—my mental image is of some kind of Pokemon!

“An early medieval hammer head found near Bambury, Oxfordshire. Photograph from The Portable Antiquities Scheme (licence: CC BY 2.0)”

Lines 3 and 4 are difficult. They borrow the idea of head becoming feet from Symphosius’ pestle riddle, which explains that pro pedibus caput est (“there is a head instead of feet”). However, it took me a long time to work out what was going on, and even longer to figure out how to translate it into idiomatic Modern English. Then it hit me that riddle was not referring to hitting at all, but to splitting, gouging or chiselling. Just like today, hand tools in early medieval Europe came in all kinds of shapes designed for all kinds of specialised tasks and trades. Presumably, one of the two heads of our hammer is an adze, chisel, or claw, which is used “upside down” or “the other way around” (vice versa) to create lenes vias (“smooth roads”) in wood, stone, or metal. In this respect, the riddle also has something in common with other riddles that describe tools that create “paths,” such as ploughs (for example, Exeter Riddle 21) and pens (for example, Bern Riddle 51).

The final two lines depart from Symphosius to give us the rather brilliant description of the hammer face as a bald man who has no use for haircuts or combs. The hammer-blows that his “shining top” (vertex nitens) gives out are depicted as kisses, which are pleasing to those craftspeople who use it. This metaphor strikes me as an extremely playful one, which draws upon other Bern riddles involving kisses (5, 6, 35, and 42) and hair (15, 18, 20, 34), and which makes this riddle very memorable. In my humble opinion, the riddler really hit the nail on the head with this one!


References and Suggested Reading:

Sources for classical and medieval hammers include:

Ulrich, Roger Bradley. Roman Woodworking. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007. Pages 13-58.

Hinton, David A. & White, Robert. "A Smith's Hoard from Tattershall Thorpe. Lincolnshire: A Synopsis.” Anglo-Saxon England, Volume 22 (1993). Pages 147-66.

Hinton, David A, et alii. A Smith in Lindsey: The Anglo-Saxon Grave at Tattershall Thorpe. London: Routledge, 2017.

Tags: latin  Bern Riddles 

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